The federal government is going into uncharted waters, deep-sixing the giant paper nautical charts that it has been printing for mariners for more than 150 years.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday that the traditional brownish heavy paper charts won't be printed after mid-April.
Capt. Shep Smith, head of NOAA's marine chart division, said the agency will still chart the water for rocks, shipwrecks and dangers, but mariners will have to see the information using private on-demand printing, PDFs and electronic maps.
"Think of them as the roadmap of the ocean," said Smith, who grew up with charts of Penobscot Bay on his boyhood Maine bedroom walls. "The navigational charts tell you what's under the water, which is critical for navigation."
But now most people use the on-demand maps printed by private shops, which are more up-to-date and accurate, Smith said.
Still, NOAA sells about 60,000 of the old lithographic 4-by-3 foot maps each year, for about $20 apiece, the same price it costs to print them.
The trouble is that NOAA doesn't print them, but the Federal Aviation Administration does. And the FAA doesn't want to print them anymore, to save some money, Smith said. The FAA took over federal chart-making in 1999, and on Oct. 15 it told NOAA it was going to stop the presses, according to the ocean agency.
It costs NOAA about $100 million a year to survey and chart the nation's waters. It will still spend that much money, but provide the information in the less traditional way.
Sea dogs say they'll miss the charts, which also get used as decorations.
"It's the nautical history, you know pirates and ships," said Newburyport, Mass., harbormaster Paul Hogg, who has a chart on his office wall. "It seems more nautical. There's just kind of, like, a feel to it."